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04/05: Preview: Watford
BSaD opinion
by Ian Grant

My mouth hurts. And it's really annoying.

Specifically, I have an ulcer. Nothing new, I get them quite a lot. But this putrid little beauty is hovering just above my left lower wisdom tooth - you know, the bit that you use all of the bloody time, whether talking, eating, or drinking. Go on, bite your teeth together. I haven't been able to do that for a week, y'bastard.

This isn't an introduction, incidentally. Instead, think of it as, well, a frame for the picture...because whatever I have to say about the coming season in the waffle that'll follow, my gob'll be hurting while I type it. If it's not hurting, that's only because I'll have used enough Anbesol to stun a rhino and I can't feel my face (pronounced faith) anymore. And I just want you to know that. Fret not, I don't expect you to do anything much (although all suggestions would be gratefully received), just to remember. That'd be a small contribution, gratefully received.

And while we're at it, I really wouldn't want you to think that my hurty-mouth is blackening my mood sufficiently to drag this article down. No, sir. I'm a professional, y'know. Actually, I'm not, but let's pretend. I have an opinion to offer, but it's an honest one...and it's no more affected by the rancid state of my cakehole than it is by, say, the tragic lack of "Harry Hill's TV Burp" in the current schedules or the awful knowledge that the only yoghurts in my fridge are out of date. I'm an adult, I can rise above all of that. Just about.

Quite clearly, it's not affected by other, more relevant factors either. Unless you're new around these parts, you'll be well aware that, as far as I'm concerned, this management team is welcome to stick around for a very long time indeed. It just fits, a round peg in a round hole. It's proved itself to be absolutely right for the task in hand...and if we ever emerge into better financial times, it deserves to be given a proper crack at bringing some measure of success to Vicarage Road. There's no axe to grind here. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Nevertheless, I do think that this is going to be a dreadful struggle.

A struggle that we can win, no doubt. We did it last time, we can do it again. But a proper, grit-your-teeth struggle, though.

It's not entirely inevitable, of course. There are always sides that evade their destiny, mainly by avoiding the injuries that would expose their lack of strength in numbers. It's always possible, and, as ever, much of next season's final league table will be decided by good and bad fortune. Post-ITV, few clubs at this level (and none below) have the cash to cover for key absences...and yet many are able to pick very decent-looking theoretical sides from their playing staff. We could breeze through, if we're lucky. Very lucky. But the odds are against it.

To an extent, the need to cut the wage bill still further has merely made the picture less flattering. With a couple of exceptions, the players who left during the summer were making things appear rather more comfortable than the bare, stark reality. Did having Wayne Brown, Jerel Ifil, Paolo Vernazza and Gary Fisken available make all that much difference last season? No, not really. We had greater numbers, but they did little to improve our fortunes. And there's a bit of an added bonus too, since there are now fewer options available to those who like to insist at tedious length that anyone who isn't in the side would do a better job than anyone who is. Not so many of those causes to champion this time, and no Lee Cook to provide a meeting point for lost, hopeless souls....

Christ, though, it's thin in places. Important places too, not just a slight lack of waifish wingers to entertain the crowd or not quite enough strikers to chuck on when we're losing with half an hour left. If you dare, count the central midfielders. You get to Jamie Hand rather sooner than you'd wish. (Which isn't a comment on Jamie Hand, incidentally, for it would be absolutely wonderful if he were to fill his boots over the next nine months. But you wouldn't want to rely on it, any more than you'd want to rely on Dominic Blizzard, Andy Ferrell or...erm, that's pretty much it, actually.) The same is true of central defenders, although we do at least have more than two of those.

As I say, it's perhaps not so very different from the true situation for much of last season. But to me, it seems impossible that we can avoid occasions in the coming months when inexperienced kids are having to fill gaps at the very heart of the side, and equally impossible that it won't have an effect on our fortunes. As we discovered during Kenny Jackett's year in charge, there's a point at which the natural, exciting process of bringing youngsters through the ranks turns into a premature reliance on their performances. Back then, we began the season with much optimism and little cover, and it did for us over the course of a long, attritional campaign. Now, it might be worth offering up a quiet prayer to the patron saint of ligaments, hamstrings and that kind of thing to tell him to leave our midfield pairing's vital bits and pieces alone....

It's a shame, really. Because a bit of depth in certain positions, via some more cash in the kitty, would make this look like a very decent squad. As before, the forward line looks lively and potent...and it doesn't seem too unreasonable to hope that some of its components will be able to start afresh and fulfil at least some of last summer's expectations. The defence mixes thirty-plus experience and twenty-ish inexperience, with each in the positions that you'd probably prefer. The midfield, allowing for the reservations expressed above, has a more solid, well-defined appearance than before...and, bearing in mind Gavin Mahon's evident willingness to bomb forward into the penalty area upon request, we needn't necessarily be short on offensive contributions from that bit of the pitch.

There's plenty to be encouraged by, in fact. The summer cuts haven't resulted in the loss of anyone who could be regarded as truly pivotal - Lee Cook only fulfilled that enormous promise in the closing two or three months of last season, and only sporadically even then; Micah Hyde's ability will be sorely missed, but it will do no harm to end our over-reliance on someone so unreliable. And the additions look very useful - a bit of weight in midfield, plus a versatile, well-established wide man and a youngster with a point to prove. Nice work, Mr Lewington. Again.

Increasingly, this is the current manager's side. His people, his choices, his squad...even those who were signed by his predecessors have now all been re-signed by the present regime. And it's all right, I reckon. It won't turn the world's head in our direction, but there's a pleasing coherence to everything, a very obvious plan at work...and while it's hard to believe that we could reduce our costs so drastically at the same time as giving the squad a very thorough, ruthless and necessary overhaul, that's effectively what will have happened if we survive 2004/05 intact. It will have been a period of transition, but transition with a purpose, far removed from the aimless drift of most of the nineties.

This is crucial, then. The most important season since the last one that we over-hyped. Because there are two scenarios here, and they're worlds apart. In one, we finish outside of the bottom three - it doesn't much matter where, frankly - with management intact and spirits relatively high. In the other, we don't. In one, we've managed to survive one of the toughest periods that our club has ever experienced, and we're in a perfect position to build slowly and cautiously, but purposefully, for the future. In the other, we might as well not have bothered. In one, we'll have had a successful season, whatever the record books might say. In the other....

There's plenty of optimism knocking around Vicarage Road right now...which is testament to the management's considerable, if relative, success in itself, for they've somehow kept everyone pulling in the same direction throughout difficult times. This would've fallen apart under lesser managers, to my mind. That optimism is fine, for confidence plays such an important part in it all...and besides, it might prove to be more well-founded than my supposed words of wisdom. Whatever, though, I'll be delighted if we're not relegated next season, if we start again in Division Two (for that's what it is) when next August comes around. That'll do for me.

Is that a lack of ambition? Does it mean that this campaign is already a non-event, an exercise in treading water? On the contrary, I think. This is a tough challenge, and it's massively, monstrously important that we succeed. Everything to play for? No, not quite. We won't be playing for a place in the Premiership. Everything else, though.

And if we do succeed...well, then you can already feel some of the genuine, heartfelt optimism of next summer. The heat of the sun after a long winter.

That's the prize that we're playing for. It's worth winning.